Saturday, 21 December 2013

Losing faith in Professor B

My faith in Scarlett Johansson is being tested by her recent fall-out with Oxfam

The question one circles round and round is this: what is the relationship between crossdreaming and transsexualism? Crossdreaming may be a symptom of transsexualism – there’s plenty of evidence of that – but there are also crossdreamers who do not identify as transsexual (I number myself among them). So we probably need to uncouple these two concepts – and rid our minds of the suggestion that one is necessarily the cause of the other – before gingerly putting them back together again.

My point of entry to the crossdreamer debate was reading summaries of Professor Blanchard’s work. I found a couple of ideas there which I grabbed hold of and held on to. One was the image of the ‘nonhomosexual’ male who is sexually aroused by the thought of himself as a woman. The other was the suggestion that this troubling state of mind could arise from an ‘erotic target location error’ in early life. The first seemed to describe me, and the second to explain how I had become what I am. I’ll return to the second in a future post; for the moment, a few words about my evolving view of Blanchard, in whom my early faith is faltering.  

The best critique I’ve read of Blanchard’s work is an article by trans activist Julia Serano.* She kicks off by noting that Blanchard (and others after him) have used the term ‘autogynephilia’ to refer to two significantly different phenomena. First, it’s used descriptively to denote a type or erotic fantasy common to many (but not all) MtF spectrum individuals in which they become aroused by the idea of being or becoming women. Second, the term is used theoretically to describe a ‘paraphilic’ model in which such fantasies arise as a result of a misdirected heterosexual sex drive (the ‘erotic target’ being located within instead of outside the individual). Once established, such fantasies become the primary cause of any gender dysphoria and the desire to physically transition to female. As Serano notes, “conflation between the descriptive and theoretical definitions of autogynephilia has led to a great deal of confusion in the literature on the subject”. She cuts through this by adopting the term “cross-gender arousal” in place of Blanchard’s descriptive use of ‘autogynephilia’, and reserves the term ‘autogynephilia’ for referring to the paraphilic model that Blanchard and others have proposed. I find this eminently sensible.

“Nobody seriously doubts the existence of cross-gender arousal,” Serano goes on. But, as her critique shows, approaches such as his based on crude binary oppositions will never compass the complexities of this issue. Take the matter of sexual orientation. Serano herself is consistently ‘gynephilic’. When she was male-bodied, the outside world would have identified her as ‘heterosexual’, as a married man, but from the off she understood her ‘subconcious sex’ (her term) as female. From that perspective she was a ‘lesbian’ before transition, just as she is a female-bodied lesbian now. This illustrates why dividing transsexuals, as Blanchard does, into ‘homosexual’ and ‘nonhomosexual’ based on their birth sex and then deriving separate aetiologies on that basis, is a bankrupt procedure. His theory also fails to allow for those transsexuals whose sexual orientation changes after transition.

Slowly I came to the belief that the only category to which Blanchard’s thesis might apply is the ‘non-transsexual autogynephile’, the group I felt myself part of.** Only with this group did it seem relevant to categorise their sexual orientation in relation to their birth sex. (Since he is unable to view transwomen as anything but men, Blanchard mistakenly thinks he can apply the same typology of sexual orientation to anyone anywhere on the transsexual spectrum.)

Riffing vaguely on his ideas, I arrived at the notion that my fantasies were contained within an overall heterosexual structure – or perhaps played out on a site of competing heterosexualities. The ‘man’ in me is hetero – he is aroused by the thought and sight of women in the world around him – but his strongest attraction is to an internalised (and probably idealised) woman. This ‘woman’ in me is also hetero: as ‘her’ I’m in fantasy sexual relations with generic, faceless men. The challenge is to turn competition into complementarity: that way lies psychic balance.

Thus the M core can be hetero and the internalised F can be hetero too. What follows is that, unlike M’s hetero desires, which are precisely targeted on F, F’s own imagined hetero desires are much fuzzier in expression – hence the recurrent ‘faceless man’ narrative. It has to be that way, so that F’s ‘desires’ can coexist with M’s without conflict. We may speculate that, in a bisexual, F’s ‘desires’ might fixate on an imagined particular man with a face.

Latterly, I’ve started to question even this legacy of Blanchardism. The subtle philosophers over at Crossdream Life have made me pause at the boundary where ‘non-transsexual’ meets ‘transsexual’ and ask what kind of a frontier it is. Are there border controls? Or is it porous?

If you’re perfectly secure in your belief that your crossdreaming is not a symptom of transsexualism, then, fine and dandy. That point of view – my point of view hitherto – should be respected. But it’s not unreasonable to suggest that a person test that conviction by experiment. Because, sometimes, their assurance is misplaced. Serano has a useful take on this in her book Whipping Girl. For someone in an uncertain state, she says, hormone treatment resolves the uncertainty by confirming a truth about which they were unsure: “I honestly was not 100 per cent sure that transitioning would ease my gender dissonance until after my first few weeks of being on female hormones. The way they made me feel, and the subsequent changes they brought about in my body, just felt... right.” My guess is that, while the hormones might artificially stimulate transgender feelings, if those feelings weren't “right”, you'd end up with even greater “gender dissonance” than you had at the outset. If your non-TS status is secure, then no amount of oestrogen is going to make you into something you are not.

*‘The case against autogynephilia’, International Journal of Transgenderism, 12 (2010), 176-187 [available on her website at]. See also the chapter ‘Pathological science: debunking sexological and sociological models of transgenderism’ in her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (2007).
**The term is used by Blanchard’s disciple Anne Lawrence in her book Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies: Narratives of Autogynephilic Transsexualism (2013). Although she devotes a separate chapter to this group, I can’t for the life of me see how they differ from the ‘transsexual autogynephiles’ who form her main subject. Indeed, the similarities are her stated reason for including them.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

All dressed up and somewhere to go

Going places: Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux

I write to understand. But shouldn’t this be a private act only? If my ‘diary’ becomes a ‘blog’, I feel exposed: I feel I’m giving away my secrets. Also, analysis is the enemy of desire. When I think about this too much, I risk damming up the channels of pleasure and losing what the poet Blake called the ‘lineaments of gratified desire’. Hitherto I’ve always written my way out of my obsessions. Something in me now baulks at such proceeding: this obsession is too bound up with self-definition. I’ve no wish to elaborate new theories of cross-gender arousal, to plough through a groaning pile of pseudo-scientific papers, to account for the variousness of other people’s experience (especially if it brings me into argument with vested interests). Nothing I write here will have universal application. My wish is just to describe my own experience and to make sense of it if I can, using as little theory as I can get away with.

It feels like having two souls in one breast, let’s call them M and F. (I’m slightly uneasy with this polarization, since it depends on essentializing gender distinctions, but that’s how I experience it and so, to be honest about my feelings, that’s how I describe it.) F is everything that M is not, which is why F is a refuge from everyday life as well as a source of erotic excitement. M is remote from his emotions, intellectual and aloof, impatient with his ugly body; F is in touch with her emotions, socially at ease, comfortable in her attractive body, and enjoying her sexuality and the power it confers over men.

I had always hoped that a ‘cure’ lay in forming adequate external relationships which would enable me to integrate the F into the M, or even suppress the internalized F. As I grew older, this hope seemed to recede and I developed a carapace of self-sufficiency. Recently, I turned a corner. I’ve learned to start celebrating my inner femme. Now she’s all dressed up with somewhere to go –somewhere in my head, somewhere in cyberspace.

Because for me, as for so many crossdreamers, it all began with the clothes…

I’ve no illusions that crossdressing is anything but sexual for me. I’ve no interest in slouching around the house in casual female attire doing ‘ordinary’ things. For me it’s more of an event, or a performance; something I do every couple of weeks, look forward to, prepare for. It’s like taking a vacation from myself for a day or two, passing through a door into another personality; going to meet someone who is an embodiment of my ‘anima’. And she has a distinct, youthful dress style, this other: ‘sexy’ but not ‘tarty’. ‘Dressing up’ is less important than it used to be, however; now I think of it more as ‘undressing-up’, a minimal style of dress (hosiery used to figure large – these days I prefer bare legs) which facilitates my inner crossdreaming while also arousing me sexually as I feel soft materials caressing bare skin and experiment with discarding them sensually as if in anticipation of sex with a faceless man. Like wrapping and unwrapping a precious gift. But I’m also fascinated by how the clothes connect me differently to a body from which I otherwise feel alienated: when you put on a dress and high heels, your posture, your gait, how you sit, automatically change.

I know some crossdreamers dislike the term ‘auto-eroticism’, but that pretty much sums it up for me. I’m not motivated to go out ‘dressed’, have no wish to meet other crossdressers, and suspect that the ridicule I might attract from the non-TV onlooker would undermine what has become an important source of emotional and sexual release for me as a single man living alone.

I shop generally in high street stores, because my female other wants to wear fashionable clothes. I’ve tried mail order but have had more misses than hits that way. Although I can’t try the clothes on, I need to see them and feel the texture before purchase. Browsing was embarrassing at first but I soon realised no one takes much notice; if they do, they probably assume I’m buying for a partner or daughter. One exception is shoes, where my big male feet prevent me from buying the lovely shoes I see in the shops. (A girl can never have too many pairs of shoes!) Fortunately, there are specialist suppliers online. I did once venture into a transvestite outfitter in England (to buy a wig) – then I really did feel embarrassed; there was an air of quiet desperation about the other customers which made me scuttle out as fast as possible. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Who is she?

The lovely Kate Beckinsale. Please can I be her?

Who is she, my inner female? She remains the same age – in her twenties – while I grow older. Over decades ‘she’ may function like Dorian Gray’s portrait in the Oscar Wilde story, but in reverse – remaining unchanged while ‘he’ grows older. The result, when crossdressing, when struggling to embody her, is that I’m wearing clothing inappropriate for a woman of my own age. Perhaps that’s part of the thrill. The teenage kick of hearing a reproving inner voice say, “You’re not wearing that, young lady!”   

She is so much more than a perfect body. Of course, she has all the physical characteristics I most like in a woman, but she also has a name and a ‘personality’. She’s intelligent and educated and witty. She cries when she’s down (and sometimes when she’s up). She has a sharp dress sense. She even has a ‘job’, although it changes from year to year, depending on my current interests. Yes, she’s a great f*** – as her partners would confirm – but she’s more than a f***-doll. Yet her essence remains indeterminacy, a capacity to mutate as my imagination pleases, even as certain characteristics, like her age and stunning figure, remain fixed. I suspect my mind rounds out her ‘personality’ as a way of legitimising the hold she has on my attention. I don’t know whether this strategy sets a ‘parameter’ on her existence, or just the opposite. Given that her presence, however welcome, has got in the way of my forming relationships for over twenty years now, I fear that she’s the one calling the shots.

‘Dabrela’, I should explain, is not her real name; it’s an intersex name that she and I use for our joint communiqués. Her real name must remain secret; for names, as shamanic religions the world over teach, confer power. That praenomen is like a spell which I utter to summon up her presence. Once, I created a profile in her real name on a social media site. Big mistake, I discovered. First, after the initial frisson, I felt guilt in misleading people, who clearly thought they were talking to a flesh-and-blood woman. (Interestingly, the online penpal who was most persistent in trying to fix up a date was a self-declared lesbian!) Second, I jeopardised the autonomy of fantasy and the scope for updating my crossdreams to hit new erotic pressure-points. In replying to correspondents’ questions, I had to create a consistent back-story for my female self, which then became imprisoning.

This I know: there has to be a division between the desiring subject and the desired object. In ‘normal’ circumstances, those are two different people, so the distinction is clear. In crossdreams, where the relationship is internalised, it’s more complicated. Blanchard posits that the transsexual’s motivation in transitioning is to physically ‘become’ the object of his desire. But would anyone truly want to do that? If you subjectivise the object, it ceases to be an object; and what then happens to the desiring subject?

Monday, 2 December 2013


A life can be haunted by what it never was
If that were merely glimpsed.
- Louis MacNeice, ‘Selva Oscura’

As far back as I can remember, my life has been haunted by what it never was. My mother, a fabulous woman but a slave to convention, used to say, ‘What makes you think you’re different?’ And as a child and adolescent I had no answer to that question. I didn’t know what made me different, but I knew that something did. Through my early manhood I pursued the goals I was expected to pursue – dating girls, or at any rate falling romantically in love with them and projecting my unreal expectations onto their unsuspecting shoulders.  

Over the years I’ve had several short-term relationships but, when the scene moved to the bedroom, I could never really ‘perform’. Faced with this response, women assumed that I must be gay and either didn’t realise it or was in denial. Was this the thing that made me ‘different’? I didn’t think I was gay because I knew that I was only aroused by the sight of, and by images of, women. Yet when I looked at those pictures (and masturbated over them) my fantasy was not to possess the woman but to be her, to be the sexy creature who could arouse these feelings in a straight man. Likewise, in fantasy, I imagined a penis penetrating me as a woman, but as a man I had no homosexual fantasies about other men.

As I entered my thirties, still hoping to find ‘Ms Right’ but beginning to suspect she wasn’t ‘out there’ at all but ‘in here’, I got seriously into crossdressing. Always in private, it was perhaps an outlet for my aborted sexual desire. This remains my leisure activity of choice. Now, however, it’s less about the clothes – literally so, these days I favour the flimsiest, skimpiest dresses – and more about the body underneath, shaved and moisturised and perfumed.

None of this made any sense until the internet opened up new worlds. Surfing the Net a couple of years ago in search of answers, I stumbled on the term ‘autogynephilia’. Literally meaning ‘love of oneself as a woman’, this term was introduced by Canadian psychologist Ray Blanchard in 1989. He defined it as ‘a male’s propensity to be sexually aroused by the thought of himself as a female’. In his theory, this was a common characteristic of what he called ‘nonhomosexual’ male-to-female transsexuals, and he went on to speculate that these transsexuals’ desire for sex reassignment was directly linked to their ‘autogynephilic’ urge to be female.

Was this me? Well, picking over Blanchard’s ideas with my rationalising ‘male’ brain, I’ve decided there is something to be salvaged from this theory. Just what that is, and where I think he goes wrong, will be a subject for future posts. Jack Molay, a staunch critic of Blanchard, has proposed an alternative concept which he calls ‘crossdreaming’, a looser term that allows room for a wider variety of gender variance, including drag queens, gender queer, and female-to-male transsexuals. I find both terms useful.

This blog will mix description and analysis, celebration and self-doubt, autobiography and a bit of hard theory. I hope you’ll join me for the journey(s).